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A Game of Words

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Early days on the French language tree.

Duolingo (iOS and Android, Free)

My several years of iPhone experience have seen me fall prey to a number of apps. Addiction to horticultural zombie escapades, miniaturised high-rise management and Indiana Jones-style sprinting have all proved fun, but I wouldn’t have called them beneficial. Well, now I may have found an app that is both addictive and good for me.

Duolingo is a language-learning app, based on the web site of the same name. The concept behind the service is a simple one: crowdsourcing humanity’s efforts to learn new languages by getting them to translate web content. Because the learners are providing a service, the learning experience is free.

Of course, having a free service doesn’t mean much if the experience is no good. Luckily, Duolingo’s app doesn’t fall down on that score. It sports a clean, colourful design that’s both welcoming and easy to understand. Each language is presented as a tree of connected lessons that users progress through at their preferred pace, from basic comprehension to complex concepts.

Lessons consist of 20 exercises, each taking no more than a few seconds to complete, with four or more lessons grouped into themed nodes (food, animals, adjectives, etc.) on the learning tree. As a barely competent reader of French, the early lessons in that language were a useful refresher for me, but if I’d wanted to jump ahead, each node offers the chance to “test out” and complete the whole thing in one short lesson.

Gamification elements are put to good use here: users get three hearts per lesson, so they can make three errors before a fourth requires them to start over. Completing a lesson earns a users points and builds their in-app vocabulary, and the number of consecutive days they’ve been playing is recorded. The intelligence behind the app seems well tuned thus far, and will point out certain errors, like misplaced accents, but not penalise users for them.

One of the big problems with learning a language (and maintaining that knowledge) is the issue of practice. Duolingo covers this too. First by offering users the chance to strengthen the skills they’ve already earned and second by providing a leaderboard so they can compare their acheivements with their friends. I can’t speak to the success of the latter as yet, but it’s another example of game mechanics intruding beneficially into the non-game world.

The Duolingo app is comprehensive in its treatment of the five languages it covers (French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) and demonstrates a wealth of thoughtful touches in its design. One feature I’d love to see is a searchable vocabulary of words in each language, but as a relatively new app, there’s bound to be more to come from this initiative.

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